As my first poetry collection, Difficult Weather, is going into a second edition in 2012, I thought I’d take a look back at a couple of poems from that book. The prose poem “Chicken Fights” is one of the most frequent requests when I give readings. And “December 25” – well, a it’s a holiday gift of the imagination, writen for an old friend who was lamenting (!) having to spend Christmas on th beach. Enjoy – and may your holidays be bright.
For Kyle Johnson
It was the summer between eighth and ninth grade. You lived in the house around the corner from mine. There isn’t much to do in August in D.C. if you don’t have a pool, if you can’t drive a car and if your parents are too tired to take you anywhere. So we gathered on your lawn in the evenings, when it was cooler, for chicken fights. I didn’t know you well, though your family lived in the same neighborhood as long as mine, or longer, and we went to the same school.
We became partners out of an accident of size—I was a big girl and you had big shoulders—and then discovered that we were good at it. I remember how solid your hands were on my thighs, keeping me balanced while I swung at the other girls. We took it seriously, being strong. And though you joked that because of my hair and butt you could make me an honorary sister, I didn’t think very much at first about you being black and me being white.
I could hear my parents whispering when I was in bed that they hoped the neighborhood would stay “good”, by which they meant mostly white, until I finished school. I think they missed the Italian ghettoes they were born in—places, my mother said, where everyone knew how to behave, which meant everyone put up with being cheated at work, at home. They did not hope for happiness on this earth. They prayed to the Virgin and hung out with their own kind.
But to win at chicken fights you had to move as if the two of you have one body and we moved like that. You were good at everything, but that was the only sport I could ever win. So one night, when everyone else had wandered home and we weren’t tired and my parents didn’t expect to see me yet, we climbed the hill over Hillcrest Heights. I was maybe thirteen. You must remember that you were a popular guy—I was serious, a brain—and perhaps you felt sorry for me. But I knew you liked me, too, you didn’t stop talking all the way up the hill, and when we got there and looked down at our homes, our streets, it all looked so small. And I remember how big I felt when you kissed me, under a tree between two streetlights. didn’t think that you were black and I was white. But I felt the future opening up, the rest of the summer gone potentially soft and beautiful under your hands. We could go off by ourselves every night and kiss.
When I got home my brother slapped me, called me a nigger-loving bitch. I still don’t know what happened to you. But you couldn’t look at me the next day when you whispered, “I made a mistake. It’s not your fault. But we can’t be any more than friends.” And I couldn’t stop thinking about how big we were for one night under that tree, and I felt the summer closing down, the school year coming, then another year, and another that would take us from the neighborhood and each other. But we had the rest of that summer to work out our compromise. During the day we were buddies, just like anyone else. In the evening I’d climb up on your shoulders and we’d work at knocking everyone else down.
December 25, 1991
Where you are it will not be snowing.
Where you are the sun will be warm and wet
on your skin, and if it rains it will only
be beach rain. Sweet, but not actual. Not like
the absolute sand. You lie there now,
I think, on your back, a margarita
by your right hand, and though your eyes
are closed the outline of the horizon
is burned in—beauty too sharply focused,
like postcards, though something beneath
the surface is off. Inside your body,
a boy is ready to take his sled
down the hill one more time. He is ready
to steer straight for the icy patches,
the bumps that send him up, then back down
on the wood with a smack. Speed is his first
infatuation—a way to cut through the visible
world—and he looks in one direction, the rest
a blue-white blur at the corners of his eyes.
This is repeatable magic, how angels might fall
out of heaven, his muscles recalling, later,
the perfect exhilaration of near flight. Afterward,
there is always cocoa in front of a fire.
The strings of his hood, unlaced, release
a new tumble of snow that inside the house
turns wet, turns ordinary. Spilled water.
But his face in the mirror retains the stolen world—
he realizes he’s beautiful, not like a movie star,
but the loveliness of a body falling in love
with itself,, for itself. And inside that mirror
I see your face. I give it back to you now,
the day, the boy, the storm. Wherever you are,
however the heat unfolds, I am opening up a door
to a room that is only what it appears
to be, only for you. Go ahead. Go in.